Wandering around an unfamiliar neighborhood is one of my favorite parts of traveling. I love to poke around in the shops, fortify myself at the local cafes, and gawp at the passersby. Last Sunday, I spent the afternoon meandering around the Ben Yehuda Street area of downtown Jerusalem. Most of this street is an open-air pedestrian mall lined with shops, restaurants, coffee shops and ice cream vendors. This area does not contain much in the way of major tourist attractions, but the atmosphere was pleasant, and my guidebook assured me I would “rub shoulders with the locals” (rather than being stampeded by herds of pilgrims.)
It sounded like a perfect place to spend a leisurely afternoon. I did enjoy it. However, I was not getting my usual explorer’s high. I was tired that day and feeling a little lonely. I explored some of the shops, but I couldn’t afford to buy anything I liked, and the shopkeepers seemed irritated by my “look, but don’t buy” resolve. Even a café latte/gelato treat didn’t save me from my plummeting spirits.
After a few hours of wandering, I was about to call it a day and go back to my hotel, when suddenly I saw this sign.
My ears perked up and my tail started wagging–or at least things would have happened if I had been a dog. Food, caffeine and books: these are a few of my favorite things. I needed to check out this place! Tmol Shilshom was no Barnes and Noble behemoth, though, straddling an entire city block. This gem was tucked away in a corner and not easy to find. Following the arrow on the sign meant I had to first walk through this slightly creepy alley:
No creepy alley would keep me from my café/bookstore, though, so I plodded onward. On the other side of the alley, though, I still didn’t see anything looking like a bookstore. I walked on for awhile and saw a door that opened into a building. When I looked inside, a man came to the door and asked if he could help me. I asked if this were a café/bookstore, and he said, “No, this is a synagogue.” Oops. The man did point me in the direction of the promised land, though. It was over here:
I discovered it by going up those stairs, taking a left, and then going up another flight of stairs.
Finally, Tmol Shilshom. For me, finding this place was like the moment in the Wizard of Oz when the movie changes from black-and-white to color. My spirits soared—especially when I noted they served beer and wine as well as food, coffee and books. Could the Emerald City be any better?
This restaurant/café/bookstore is located in a 130 year old building. It occupies what used to be two separate apartments, separated by an outdoor terrace, which now serves as an outdoor café. The building was originally used for residential apartments. Later, it was turned into a tailor’s shop and later still, into commercial space. But now it is a restaurant/café/bookstore catering to bookish, intellectual, artistic writer types. (They often use the space for book launches and readings.) The atmosphere is warm and cozy. The ceilings are of arched stone, the furniture of dark wood, and the numerous alcoves are filled with books in Hebrew and English. (I thought about taking pictures, but I didn’t want to look like a total dork.)
Before sitting down, I of course first needed to check out the books. It didn’t take me too long before my book radar led me to a chunky memoir by Amos Oz called A Tale of Love and Darkness. I had never read Oz, but I had heard of him—vaguely. Apparently, he is Israel’s most famous writer. I bought the book, sat down at a table, ordered wine and vegetable couscous, and was immediately captivated by his prose, which is both funny and sad at the same time. He writes about growing up in Jerusalem in the 40s and 50s; his prose evokes the early days of Israel so strongly that I was not only transported back to an earlier time, I felt the need to wash my hands with antibacterial soap. Here is an example of his prose:
“My Grandmother Shlomit arrived in Jerusalem straight from Vilna one hot summer’s day in 1933, took one startled look at the sweaty markets, the colourful stalls, the swarming sidestreets full of the cries of hawkers, the braying of donkeys, the bleating of goats, the squawks of pullets hung up with their legs tied together, and blood dripping from the necks of slaughtered chickens, she saw the shoulders and arms of middle-eastern men and the strident colors of the fruit and vegetables, she saw the hills all around and the rocky slopes, and immediately pronounced her final verdict: “The Levant is full of germs.””
The explorer’s high that had eluded me all afternoon had returned. I got my “hit,” and settled in for a rapturous evening with white wine and Oz.